Rapid Seven-Fold “Never Been Observed at WIPP” Increases in Salt Convergence in Panel 7 Where Waste Is Planned for Disposal

From October 24th through October 31st, 2016, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conducted a special inspection of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and found rapid seven-fold increases in the convergence rate of the Panel 7 salt formation where the Department of Energy (DOE) plans to dispose of radioactive and hazardous waste when reopening the dump in early January.  MSHA_Technical_Support_Evaluation   Other evidence of changing conditions in the WIPP underground include the increasing number of salt falls from the mine ceiling – four in the last two years – in January 2015 and September, October and November, 2016.

Convergence happens throughout the mine, on the floor, walls and ceiling.  Miners use ground control tools, such as roof bolts, and shaving the walls and floors, to address convergence.  Between September 2014 and October 2016, MSHA identified 34 ground control deficiencies. In early December, MSHA cited five additional ground control violations, four of which remain unresolved.

WIPP is located 2,150 below the surface.  Salt “creeps” around the waste containers and encases them.  In September, MSHA inspectors found recent evidence of accelerated creep in Panel 7, Room 4 in excess of 10 inches per year; double the steady rate.  They report, “A subsequent reading just days later indicated that the rates had increased to about 36 inches per year at these two [monitoring] stations, and to 25 inches per year at the third.  Such a rapid increase in convergence had never before been observed at WIPP.”  MSHA_Technical_Support_Evaluation at p. 14.

After that inspection, a massive 200-foot long salt slab collapsed from the roof in Room 4.  Miners who were there just 20 minutes earlier, heard the fall, observed the dust storm, and were evacuated.  MSHA reports, “Just 5 days before the collapse Technical Support’s visual inspection did not indicate that a failure was imminent.  The convergence monitoring, on the other hand, gave about a month’s warning.”  MSHA_Technical_Support_Evaluation at p. 17.

Even though remote convergence monitoring is used in other mines, WIPP miners manually take measurements at stations located approximately 75 feet apart throughout the underground.  MSHA recommended that WIPP install a readily available, real-time, remote monitoring system, which “could have provided an accurate estimate of time of the impending collapse, so that the miners could have been withdrawn.”  MSHA_Technical_Support_Evaluation at p. 20.

MSHA inspectors met with underground miners about their ground control concerns.  One miner said, “The ground control program is now ‘running around putting out fires,’ when roof support used to be more systematic.”  Another said, “The ground in the underground is not waiting on us.  Time is not on our side.”  Another recommended, “We should secure the rooms that we can, and then move on.  We should not try to save everything.”  MSHA_Technical_Support_Evaluation at p. 18. 

WIPP, the world’s only disposal site for waste generated by the research, development and manufacture of nuclear weapons, has been closed for almost three years, since February 2014, when poor maintenance resulted in a truck fire in the underground mine.  A few days later, one or more waste containers exploded in Panel 7, contaminating 22 workers, the public, and the underground mine.  Late last week, DOE gave itself permission to begin emplacing waste again in January.

The December 1st MSHA inspection report was released by DOE on Friday, December 23rd following the filing of a Freedom of Information Act appeal to the DOE Office of Hearing and Appeals by Citizen Action New Mexico and CCNS about the non-release of critical safety documents, including the MSHA inspection report.  For more information, please see last week’s Update at http://nuclearactive.org/doe-denies-expedited-foia-request-by-citizen-action-nm-and-ccns-for-critical-wipp-documents-citizen-action-nm-and-ccns-appeal-denial/

The public release of the MSHA report reveals that significant infrastructure problems remain in the WIPP underground despite DOE’s premature plans to reopen WIPP for waste disposal in January.  The Conclusions and Recommendations section of the MSHA report warns that “[t]he impending resumption of waste handling activities could negatively impact the resources available for ground control.”  MSHA_Technical_Support_Evaluation at p. 20.


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